Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From the South to South Africa

It is difficult to describe just what it is that has been calling me back to South Africa. IF you know me at all, you know it has been about 3 years in the making. This time though I get to experience the country through a Post-Graduate education program while being an ambassador for Rotary International. For those of you that do not know, Rotary International is a world wide service organization comprised of local businessmen and women who raise money and work to make change locally and internationally. Their biggest achievement is working to eradicate polio, which only exists in 4 countries now. As a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar my role will be to participate in Rotary Meetings through my local club, speak at Rotary Clubs around Cape Town and South Africa, as well as participate in service projects. In addition, I will be receiving my Master’s degree in Environmental and Geographic Sciences at the University of Cape Town. My focus will be on water conservation and management through community outreach.

Anyways, that is how I got here to Cape Town. My first night I arrived to meet the President of the District for RI as well as my host counselor, Terrence Matzdorff. Terrence and his family welcomed me with open arms, sarcastic comments (which if you know my family, is standard protocal), home cooked meals, and help getting set up. Immediately I felt like I was at home with the Matzdorff’s. They gave me tips on the city, showed me how to get back and forth from campus, took me to see apartments, and so on. I am forever grateful for their generosity. The generosity has not stopped at the Matzdorff’s. I’ve found that my American accent has opened more doors than I had assumed. Even though most people do have stereotypes of how American’s act, most people who I’ve interacted with have been eager to help and I’m sure laugh at whatever silly thing I was asking about. It is strange how two countries that speak the same language, still have so many language barriers. In general though, I’ve been working hard to break American stereotypes, and find common ground with the people I’ve interacted with.

Thanks to my hosts, and my roommate, Jessica’s hosts the first 10 days also allowed me to see various beautiful parts of the city. We went to Kirstenbosch, which are the botanical gardens right under Table Mountain. Every Sunday there are concerts at Kirstenbosch, which I’m excited to attend. We went to Llandando Beach, being that January here is the summer - woo woo! We were driven around the city to see various views, and walked around campus to get accustomed to where we would be attending Uni. I also had a chance to speak at a rotary club and explain why I’m here, where I’m from, and what I hope to accomplish.

In terms of logistics, the first ten days involved a lot of running around trying to set up a cell phone, bank account, and get the money transferred to my bank account. luckily, Jessica happens to be a pretty organized person, and so we managed to get it all done (though our funding came a bit late so we had to improvise the first few days). However, it did help us get to know the city better, and how things work here. Internet is quite expensive, and capped so it's been a good experience getting used to things that seem to come so easy in America.

Through Rotary, I had the pleasure of attending Ray’s Reunion. Ray is the President of RI, and happened to be a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in Cape Town in the 50s. At the reunion, I heard F.W. DeKlerk speak, as well as Frances Moloi. F.W. DeKlerk was involved in ending apartheid government in the 90s in South Africa. He spoke about the issues facing our world, and what the solutions to various conflicts could be. He discussed the opportunities Africa would have in the future to become stronger, and more of a world power. Frances Moloi was an Ambassadorial Scholar to Harvard University and then became the SA Ambassador to India. His speech was focused on how much he learned from being an Ambassadorial Scholar, and how he took the time to talk to students from all over the world about conflict and conflict resolution. The Rotary Ambassadorial experience is what you make it. Moloi reminded me though of the purpose of the program, and inspired me to really make it worthwhile whether it be through service or just through conversations with people from all over the world. It is important to remember how even small interactions can open up doors to new conversation, and lead to change whether it be change in perspective or attitude.

My next step in getting set up here will be to establish my service organization of choice. Word on the street is, there is an Outward Bound in Cape Town, so it’s only a matter of time before I’m knocking down their door. I’ve also been told of an organization that helps families in the townships make garden plots. In addition, I’m working on setting up a sister school with my high school from Atlanta. Finding the right school is a challenge though, because Cape Town is set up much like Atlanta in my opinion (minus the beach). The city is divided into sections, suburbs, and segments often divided by economic means and ethnicity. The main part of the city is much more integrated and reminds me of areas of downtown and Decatur. So I’m in the process of finding a good fit for an exchange program that will give students a different perspective than they are used to without re-enforcing stereotypes of Africa. I’ve been able to make some good contacts due to this, so it is quite exciting. On Monday I was invited to the Newlands Rotary Club meeting where young adults that are involved in Rotary were invited to come and talk about what their local school clubs have been doing. There were students there from a school called LEAP that gives students from low-income areas and troubled backgrounds the opportunity to get an education. It was extremely inspiring to hear about all of the service projects the schools have been doing, and I hope to work on finding a way to partner with them in the future.

So that has been my experience so far. Sometimes it is easy to forget that I’m in South Africa because Cape Town is such a huge city, and very industrialized and modern in many ways. It’s a strange mix between people that are connected, and still removed from the consumerism levels of America. In a way I think South Africa has gotten it right, but then again it’s hard to say if a society would change if they had the same access to all of the technology that comes to cheap in the states.

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